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Growing Lightly

Karen Halasa

It is apparent even in the mainstream media that food has become one of the hottest and most politicised issues to arise as a corollary to the effects of climate change. The threats to food supply come not only from the desertification of once arable land through over-farming and reliance on chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. Our insistence on supermarkets stocking foods whether or not they are in season or grown locally, and that this produce should be as cheap as possible, has led to a reliance on imports and products that have been transported huge distances within Australia. It has also resulted in the squeezing out of the smaller producers unable to compete with agribusiness and the relationship it has with supermarket chains. Primary producers who do supply the supermarkets often find that control of what they grow—as well as its quantities, its keeping properties and how it looks on the shelf—are prescribed not by an open market but by their trading relationship with one buyer.

The transportation of food over large distances, consuming volumes of fossil fuels, has led to a concept of food miles and a recognition that, in an era of peak oil (the argument is no longer whether oil production has peaked but exactly when it did), the security of mass-produced food for a mass market may be seriously under threat. The carbon footprint of our food also seems an unnecessarily high price to pay for tropical fruit or tomatoes out of season.

Other arguments about the way our food is produced are based on equally valid and perhaps even more immediate concerns. For many years consumers have complained of a lack of flavour and vitality in much of the fresh produce bought, even when in season. Michael Pollan’s seminal work The Omnivore’s Dilemma horrified readers with tales of the industrialisation and mechanisation of food production, like the process by which tomatoes for ketchup manufacture were grown in the United States: the crops were planted so close together that weeds could not grow between them and mechanical harvesters could harvest them all in one hit. The inevitable result—a proportion were under-ripe and the produce was contaminated by animal matter—was remedied by spraying green tomatoes red, with Rodent Hair Content (RHC) later measured to ensure the sauce was within guidelines. Ethical concerns about the rearing of animals in feed lots and vast areas of US farmland becoming monocultures, largely planted with corn, raised the levels of debate and consciousness.

Another system that disempowers the farmer, whether in the developed or undeveloped world, is the attempt by Monsanto to introduce genetically modified seed with a terminator gene preventing it from being saved from one generation to the next. Clearly our treatment of food and the land on which it depends as just another manipulable commodity requires re-examination.

The benefits of food grown without chemicals, with regard to local biospheres and soil, for biodiversity and for our health are well known—and the organics industry is growing. Most interestingly, small-scale producers and consumers have initiated and supported farmers’ markets, which have sprung up all over Australia. Local growers of fresh produce bring their wares to a traditional-style market and sell directly to the consumer who can then ask questions about how the food is grown and learn more about what it is they consume and how it can be produced ethically, cleanly and sustainably. Heritage varieties of vegetables and fruits can be purchased, ensuring the survival of a range of free pollinated varieties and maintaining control of seed supplies, and consumers can avoid the unwitting purchase of genetically modified food. This scaling down of the food market to smaller producers selling in smaller communities has enormous benefits but can only be part of a small farmer’s income: its profitability is limited.

One of the difficulties of farming on a small scale is the level of financial risk involved. In Europe and the United Kingdom schemes have been in place for a number of years in local communities that attempt to share this risk across producers and consumers. Community Supported Agriculture allows consumers to become ‘shareholders’. In return for an up-front payment of a nominated amount, the consumer receives a weekly box of produce direct from the farm. The quality and freshness of the produce is generally superior to anything that could be bought elsewhere but the continuity of supply is dependent on the things farmers usually rely on—their labour and the rainfall, pest activity and seasonal variations. Consumers share some of that risk, and for the farmer the other variable—whether or not they can sell their produce for a reasonable price—is obviated.

A modified form of this scheme exists in Victoria in South Gippsland. Grow Lightly, initiated by permaculture practitioners and bushfood growers Meredith and Gil Freeman, brings local growers together with local consumers. Any Sunday morning, come rain, hail or shine, a band of dedicated growers pack vegetables, fruit, eggs and nuts into boxes for local customers at the old cordial factory at Coal Creek in Korumburra. Consumers pay a month in advance for vegetable boxes, which supply them with a variety of locally produced fresh produce. The aim is to source the produce from the point at which it was grown and to distribute as close as possible to the ultimate consumers. The mainly small-scale growers live on farms within a 20 kilometre radius of the township of Korumburra: Kardella, Loch, Outtrim and Leongatha. Consumers come from various local areas and there are several distribution hubs, at Korumburra, Loch, Inverloch, Fish Creek and Ellinbank. Recipes for cooking the produce, especially some of the more exotic or unusual varieties (for example, Jerusalem Artichokes, Daikon radishes and Tamarillos), are often included in the boxes.

To increase variety and quantity, vegetables are sourced from larger growers like the organic farm Cafresco at Dalmore, while the centre of Victoria’s asparagus-growing area Koo Wee Rup supplies seasonal organic asparagus. All produce is grown either by certified organic producers or is guaranteed pesticide free (the costs of certification for very small growers can be prohibitive).

One of the remarkable things about the weekly vegetable boxes is the variety of produce Grow Lightly manages to source. South Gippsland is a fertile area for enough different fruits and vegetables to provide a range and variety of produce. In each box the producers include items from the following groups: potatoes, onions (leeks and garlic), greens for cooking or salads, fruiting vegetables, fruit, herbs, nuts and eggs. The co-operative stocks their boxes with an awareness of the importance of eating a variety of different colours every day—red to ward off cancer, orange/yellow for heart health, green to preserve eyesight, blue/purple to protect the brain.

Beyond being a collective for the selling of surplus produce through the box system, Grow Lightly has a monthly presence at the Korumburra Farmers Market on the second Saturday of the month, with some members also selling homemade produce like jams, butters, baked goods, seedlings and cut flowers. Once a month, after box packing, a Sunday morning breakfast is provided at someone’s home, and a working bee is organised to net fruit trees, plant seeds or weed garden beds.

It is no surprise that many of the members of Grow Lightly are also involved in other local projects such as the Local Food Network, set up under the auspices of the South Gippsland Council. The network runs workshops on small-scale farming which are well attended by the local farming community. The Energy Innovation Co-op, which runs an annual ‘expo’ in Wonthaggi highlighting recent innovations in alternative energy, also involves members of Grow Lightly, and there is a lot of interest in the Transition Town movement.

If the responses to climate change were only those manifestly inadequate ones mouthed by our politicians then we might have reason to despair. Lacking vision and creativity, not to mention the political will to lead rather than simply follow the results of opinion polls and focus groups, our political leaders choose expediency, placating powerful vested interests and focusing on electoral popularity over effective policies in the face of impending environmental disaster.

The debate is over, the science irrefutable. An economy based on present patterns of production and consumption and the premise of unlimited growth is no longer tenable. It is this attitude that has seen much of our land and many of our natural systems degraded. Attempts by Grow Lightly consumers and producers to scale down production and consumption of basic foodstuffs to human proportions, to reinvigorate and empower local communities and their economies, may be a small step in the direction of an effective response, but there are many such initiatives worldwide that are gaining strength.

In urban areas too there are farmers markets, community garden projects and vegetable box schemes (CERES Environment Park, for example). The environment movement has grown and has, through the increasing popularity of the Greens, a presence in our parliamentary system. These are encouraging signs and may lead us to hope for a new way of life, one that will be simple, community-oriented and even very tasty.

Karen Halasa teaches at Holmesglen Institute of TAFE in the Writing program, and until recently ran an organic farm and produce shop in Korumburra.